Rolex is no stranger to causing kerfuffles with its releases. When Rolex put a ceramic bezel on the steel Daytona in 2016, people reacted like it was the second coming of Christ (This is what we’ve all been waiting for!). In 2022 the watch world had a proper meltdown when Rolex released a left-handed GMT-Master II. Those examples are to say nothing of the fact that the brand just cannot seem to make changes to the Air-King without a swift backlash. What those all have in common is that the clamor dies down and cooler heads prevail. There are exceptions, of course, and perhaps chief among them is the Rolex Daytona 116598 SACO, a leopard-dial solid-gold watch with a matching leopard strap, plenty of diamonds, and sapphires set around the bezel. Brace yourselves for a watch that continues to court controversy 18 years after its release.
Far be it from me to provide a history of the Rolex Daytona—such informational writing abounds on the internet and couldn’t be done justice here. Here’s the very short version: The Rolex Daytona was introduced in 1963 and has had two major updates since then, in 1988 and 2000. When did the bedazzling start? The first serially produced gem-set Daytona appears to be the 6269, released in the mid-1980s and offered in a solid gold case with diamonds on the bezel; in some instances, the dial was covered in gems as well. Gem-set models were never the norm, though, and when the Rolex Daytona 116598 SACO Leopard was released in 2004, collectors had no idea what to do with such a design, uncharacteristic as it was of The Crown. While the Daytona has since received the rainbow treatment with the 116598RBOW and even an updated leopardine design with the 116588 TBR, no iteration has come close to the divisive extravagance of the Rolex Daytona 116598 SACO Leopard.
Let’s begin with the simple specs before getting into the outrageous decor. The Daytona Leopard comes in a 40mm 18k gold case that’s 12mm thick, 50.6mm lug-to-lug, and has 20mm lugs. The watch is water resistant to 100m thanks to the gold screwdown pushers and screwdown Triplock crown on the 3 o’clock side. Aside from the screwdown caseback, the entire watch is polished. The watch features a sapphire crystal over the dial and is surrounded by a bezel set with 36 baguette-cut cognac sapphires in place of the traditional tachymeter scale.
The dial is perhaps one of the more outré that Rolex has created. The leopard print is black enamel on a textured base that shifts across its width from yellow to orange and back to yellow; looking at the pattern one can see it is perfectly symmetrical and resembles a leopard pelt. The hours are marked with square diamond set in gold surrounds, except for the cardinal markers which are the Rolex crown and applied gold arabic numerals. The chronograph subdials are sunken and crafted in gold, as are all the hands; all the hands are polished and the hour and minute hands are faceted. While the dial printing gets lost against the leopard pattern, all the usual suspects are here: The Rolex name, chronometer certification, and Cosmograph text is at 12 while the red Daytona text remains above the running seconds sundial at 6. The entire dial is almost humorously surrounded by an unscaled chronograph track—as if anyone would actually use the watch to time things.
You may have read the description of the dial and thought, “That’s what makes this watch so crazy.” You’re entitled to your thoughts, but that one is wrong. What makes the 116598 SACO so crazy is the strap and its endlinks. First, Daytona’s rarely come on anything other than a bracelet (recent Oysterflex options being the exceptions), so finding this on a leather strap at all is jarring. However, it’s not just a leather strap, it’s a leopard print leather strap that matches the dial. Taking it a step (or several) further are the endlinks: each is set with 24 diamonds, segmented 6-12-6 by gold dividers and mimicking, if you will, a leopard’s claw. It’s the leopard print and the claw-like endlinks that elevate this watch from intriguing to extravagant. For what it’s worth, the strap has a solid gold deployant Oysterclasp.
The Rolex Daytona 116598 SACO Leopard is powered by the 201-component automatic Rolex 4130 caliber. When the 4130 was introduced in 2000, after 5 years of development, it was Rolex’ first new in-house caliber in over 50 years. (Daytona’s had previously been powered by outsourced movements from Valjoux and Zenith.) The column-wheel, vertical clutch chronograph movement features 44 jewels, a 72-hour power reserve, and a frequency of 4hz. It has a monometallic free-sprung balance compensated for temperature and adjusted in 6 positions via the Rolex Microstella regulation screws, and has a Rolex Parachrom hairspring with a Breguet overcoil. The balance itself is fixed to a full bridge, providing additional stability, while the winding mechanism utilizes ceramic ball bearings for added efficiency. The movement is rhodium-plated and has fausses côtes and perlage finishing.
Versus the Competition
I’ll take a different approach here, and offer you three Daytona alternatives, since the model line has something for everyone. Aside from the new Leopard Daytona released in 2019, the Rainbow Daytona is the closest relative of the 116598 SACO. This bejeweled masterpiece shows off the brand’s gemsetting prowess just as well as the Leopard, but with a bit more class and a more appealing color palette—the entire rainbow. You can check out our deep dive here.
You could, of course, be simple and just get a stock black or white steel Daytona with the ceramic bezel and platinum PVD insert. They’re cleanest options of all the Daytonas, and you really can’t go wrong with either, but given all the options why choose the least interesting?
Maybe there’s something in the middle: I’d go with the platinum Daytona 116506 with the chocolate brown ceramic bezel. It’s a well-regarded model with a glacier blue dial that gives it a bit of flair and a chocolate bezel that gives it a bit of funk. It’s a much more Rolex Rolex than the Leopard while still doing its own thing.
The unapologetically flamboyant showoff. That’s who this watch is for. The level of confidence it will take to not just strap this onto one’s wrist, but to fend off the judgmental eyes of onlookers. It’s a gold chronograph with diamonds, sapphires, and a leopard dial—it’s not for the faint of heart, it’s for the bold individual who doesn’t care what others think.
There are some watches that are showpieces because of their cachet within the watch world, and there are others that extend beyond and draw the eyes of anyone who sees them. The Rolex Daytona 116598 Leopard is one of the latter. It’s a bold, daring watch from a brand not exactly known for being bold and daring. Like it or not, most Rolexes are variations on one of a handful of themes, but not the Daytona Leopard. It’s truly unique.